Del. Robert F. "Bob" McDonnell declared victory yesterday in the race for Virginia's attorney general even as the Democratic candidate, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, said the contest is so close that a recount might be needed.
At a news conference in Richmond, McDonnell, who held a minuscule lead with votes still trickling in, said he has put together a transition team that includes former attorneys general.
"I feel confident that I'm the next attorney general of Virginia," McDonnell said. "With 60 days to go, it would be foolish of me not to start now. I have a lot of work to do. . . . I've got to make some personnel decisions. I have to get a legislative packet ready to go."
But Deeds, a lawmaker from Bath County, said the race -- one of the closest statewide contests in Virginia history -- is too close to call and continued to express confidence that he would prevail. He announced that he had put together a team of nine lawyers, headed by Joseph C. Kearfott, a partner at Hunton & Williams, to oversee recount efforts. And Deeds, too, said he was putting together a transition team.
"It's not over," Deeds said yesterday morning from the Marriott Hotel in Richmond. "When every vote's counted, I'm going to be the next attorney general of Virginia."
Under Virginia law, the loser may request a recount but not until the state Board of Elections certifies the results, which will occur Nov. 28. If the winner's lead is less than one-half of 1 percent, the state will pay for the recount, election officials said.
At one point yesterday afternoon, with results from three precincts still outstanding, McDonnell was leading by 1,480 votes of about 1.9 million cast. The unofficial count changed slightly during the day because some localities were still counting absentee ballots and others tweaked results when they discovered errors, state elections officials said.
If Deeds formally requests a recount, it would be only the second time in a statewide election, officials said. After the 1989 gubernatorial election, a recount confirmed Democrat L. Douglas Wilder's victory over J. Marshall Coleman, the Republican candidate.
Virginia voters have elected a Republican attorney general in the past three election cycles, and political analysts attributed this year's neck-and-neck contest largely to the Democratic success at the top of the ticket. Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) defeated former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) in the gubernatorial election.
"Part of it is a coattails effect," said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University. "Kaine did so well . . . it brought the attorney general race closer than anyone had anticipated."
Deeds and McDonnell are former prosecutors, and each has served in the Virginia General Assembly for 14 years. The men largely agree on public safety reforms, including efforts to strengthen punishments for sex offenders, but disagree on some social issues. For example, McDonnell is a leader in the state's antiabortion movement, and Deeds said abortion should remain legal.
Rosanna Bencoach, policy manager at the State Board of Elections, said a candidate has 10 days from the board's certification Nov. 28 to request a recount. If that happens, a three-judge panel would oversee the efforts. A final count could take weeks.
Deeds's spokesman, Peter Jackson, said that McDonnell's victory speech was premature and that it was too soon to know whether the campaign would call for a recount. "Once every vote is counted, then it's time to talk about who won and who lost," he said.
Deeds said yesterday that he had "anecdotal evidence" that voting machines in the Roanoke area had malfunctioned. He stopped short of alleging fraud but said there were reports that some votes intended for him were recorded for McDonnell.
"People pushed the touch screen for my name, and on the final page they had voted for Bob McDonnell," he said. The irregularity was noticed, and "it finally cleared up," he said.
State elections officials did not return messages seeking comment about the possible irregularities.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.